Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

28 July 2008

Lack of Imagination I: Small Remotely Piloted Aircraft

Our Remotely Piloted Aircraft Deficit
Technical Advantages of RPA
Small RPA: the Perfect Twenty-First-Century Weapon
What’s Holding Us Back
How We Can Move Forward


For the last two decades, our national leadership has displayed such a stunning lack of imagination as to suggest that it has suffered a collective lobotomy. Nowhere is the absence of imagination more acute than in our military and intelligence services and our bloated, corrupt, backward and grossly inefficient military-industrial complex.

The contrast with our Golden Age half a century ago is stunning. As I’ve outlined in an earlier post, we won World War II in large measure with superior imagination. When the Japanese took the Malaysian rubber fields, we invented synthetic rubber. We discovered the Japanese Navy’s plans to attack Midway with a brilliant ruse. We hid our intention to invade occupied Europe at Normandy using a vast, fake armada of rubber planes and tanks aimed at Calais. Our allies, the British, deciphered the Nazis’ machine-generated battle codes without ever letting on that they had done so. And we devoted a vast fraction of our national wealth and industrial output to developing atomic weapons on nothing more than the abstract theories of brilliant physicists, most of whom were foreign born.

Yet for the past generation our response to foreign threats has been not only lacking in imagination, but largely incompetent. In contrast, the Colombian military recently pulled off a brilliant ruse to extract hostage Ingrid Betancourt from the FARC’s clutches unharmed.

When Colombia beats us in imagination, we know we need to improve. Possibly the perpetual sleep deprivation that permeates our culture has stifled creative thought. Yet whatever the reasons (and there are probably more than one), our gross national imagination deficit may be our undoing.

In this series of occasional essays, I propose some imaginative solutions to our national problems. All of them require few resources, especially when compared to the stupendous sums we are wasting on nonproductive or counterproductive activities. We are now spending more than $1.3 billion per day on foreign oil. We have spent, on the average, over half a billion dollars per day on the war in Iraq. In comparison, these solutions require minimal investment, but they do require a bold mind set—i.e., imagination.

This essay discusses small remotely piloted aircraft as a solution to the twenty-first century’s military and intelligence challenges, including terrorism and weapons proliferation. Future essays in this same series will discuss other problems susceptible to imaginative solutions. (Several posts on this blog already discuss good batteries as a solution to our national energy crisis. This post has links back to the others.)

Our Remotely Piloted Aircraft Deficit

A few weeks ago, a little-noticed item in the New York Times reported on our deficit of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was and is much greater need for these devices than the Air Force can supply. The need is so great that military leaders discussed stripping down light civilian airframes and converting them to unmanned surveillance craft.

The Times story also reports more than a little inter-service rivalry over these devices. To those of us who remember the Cold War, it evokes a return to the bad old days of destructive inter-service rivalry, before our current “integrated command.” Yet to the troops and commanders on the ground, any increase in the availability of RPA would be a godsend. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—one of the few high officials of the Bush Administration with any imagination at all—reportedly tried to hasten the process of developing, producing and training pilots for these devices.

This depressing scenario of lack of imagination and sluggishness in our military supply chain follows the Humvee-armor and body-armor scandals of the Iraq War and the continuing tanker-plane procurement scandal, now going into its third year. Yet in the long run the need for imagination it illustrates may be the most important of all. For RPA, in particular small RPA, promise to be the best weapons for meeting the military and intelligence challenges of the twenty-first century.

Technical Advantages of RPA

The paradigm is the “bin Laden Problem.” How do you find and neutralize a terrorist or terrorist group hiding in rugged, inaccessible territory surrounded by innocent civilians and a generally sympathetic (or terrorized) population? Our response so far has been conventional aircraft carrying conventional or precision bombs, plus an occasional wistful but unrealistic look at ground invasion. These “solutions” have produced consistent failure and significant collateral damage—which can be particularly counterproductive in fighting an insurgency.

Modern RPA with high-resolution video and other sensing capabilities may provide an answer. They can operate secretly and discretely, without the political and social cost of ground incursions. By permitting positive, real time identification of targets and precision strikes, they can also reduce collateral damage.

Three additional technical advantages also derive from the very fact that RPA carry no human pilots. First, because they are remotely controlled, RPA are expendable. Their operation risks no pilot’s life. Likewise, they pose no risk of a pilot being shot down or crashing behind enemy lines. There is consequently no need to plan or mount rescue operations, and no danger of a pilot becoming a geopolitical pawn, as happened to Francis Gary Powers during the Cold War.

Second, RPA can be made much more maneuverable than manned aircraft. Not only can they be made lighter. They can also be designed to make turns whose G forces would cause pilots to black out, even with high-G pressure suits. We can build remotely-piloted aircraft that could beat any manned aircraft in a dogfight by performing maneuvers that no human could make and remain conscious. In addition, computer-assisted control—in the aircraft, on the ground or in a surveillance aircraft—could augment a remote pilot’s experience and instincts and make limited flight decisions faster than any human reflex.

Finally, RPA can avoid the size, space, weight and bulk limitations of having to support a human pilot. They can be made much smaller, lighter, and harder to detect than planes big enough to carry human pilots.

These advantages are well known. Remotely piloted Predator aircraft have twice spotted bin Laden himself, although no permission was given to target him. They have killed high-ranking Al Qaeda operatives and other militants in Pakistan and Iraq, but they also have caused significant collateral damage.

Small RPA: the Perfect Twenty-First-Century Weapon

How can we do better? One way is by better exploiting the chief advantage of RPA: the very fact that they do not carry pilots.

That advantage frees RPA from constraints of size and weight and the need to carry life-support and escape devices. Freed from these constraints, RPA can be made small, maneuverable, cheap and expendable.

Small RPA with these characteristics can operate in swarms instead of squadrons. They can get close enough to targets to facilitate positive identification by facial features, dress or even voice. Some may fall to small-arms fire, but the swarm’s ability to deliver precise identification and precision strikes will compensate for the loss of some aircraft, especially in light of their extraordinarily low cost.

It is precisely this freedom from the limitations of manned flight that will make small RPA revolutionary in reconnaissance and anti-terror activities. Imagine, for example, a swarm of a hundred or so remotely piloted planes, each about the size of a large model airplane, and each carrying a small-bore rifle, a light grenade, or a suitable quantity of C-4. Imagine further each plane under the control of a separate, highly trained pilot, operating in a hangar or surveillance aircraft remote from the field of battle but in reliable electronic or voice communication with his or her comrades. The opportunities for a fearless, flawlessly planned, and well-coordinated surveillance or attack mission are palpable. If you add to this equation the notion that the aircraft are cheap and expendable, the advantages of RPA over conventional aircraft are overwhelming.

Small RPA could be made expendable in two ways. First, they could be much smaller, lighter, and simpler than conventional aircraft. Second, designers could transfer much of the computer analysis from the aircraft themselves to surveillance vehicles or remote-piloting complexes, thereby relieving the flight vehicle of the need to carry expensive computer equipment and software.

If made sufficiently small, light and undetectable, RPA could perform missions entirely beyond the capability of current aircraft. They could fly through open doors behind or ahead of enemy operatives. Conceivably, they could even transmit brief glimpses from inside Iran’s uranium-enrichment facilities in Natanz or bin Laden’s caves in Pakistan. If they are small and cheap and expendable enough, there is in theory no place they could not go.

These sorts of RPA lie entirely within the ambit of current technology. They would require little development: just a marriage of current aeronautics, model airplane design, and aircraft technology with present-day miniaturized electronics. Their “eyes” would be little more than the chips used in digital cameras (with more expensive optics), their “ears” the electret microphones built into every laptop PC, perhaps with Bose-like electronics to remove engine noise. Their brains could be standard microprocessors and ROMs (read-only memories), specially programmed. The only features that might need significant special development are their radios (to work around corners and evade detection) and the external design and covering (to evade detection by the eye and electronic means, including radar). Small engines (including miniature jet engines) also might benefit from further development focusing on military and intelligence objectives.

What’s Holding Us Back

Why don’t we have these weapons and surveillance vehicles now? I wish I knew. I have no security clearance or access to military secrets. So we may have them, or we may be developing them, and I just might not know about it.

But three factors suggest the contrary. First, there is no hint in the press that we have any such weapons. All the press coverage speaks of big, expensive RPA with multiple weapons, like the Predator and the Reaper. Some months ago, a national news magazine had a short piece on modern weaponry. It included model-plane-like surveillance vehicles capable of being launched by soldiers in the field. The Israelis reportedly were said to be developing similar devices. Yet I’ve seen or heard nothing of them since.

Second, economic considerations suggest why there may be opposition to building and using small RPA. With its $ 10 million price tag ($40 million for a set of four, with control equipment), the Predator promises significant profit for its manufacturer. Even if a small RPA costs as much as $4,000—surely a high figure for a radically simplified design in mass production—a contractor would have to make and sell 10,000 of them to garner the same revenue. Likely our bloated and self-interested military-industrial complex has little interest in making what it would no doubt refer to contemptuously as “model airplanes.”

Third, similar cultural considerations make introducing small-scale RPA touchy from a personnel standpoint. Ever since the Wright Brothers over a century ago, an airplane has been something that can carry a man. A weapon or surveillance vehicle the size of a model airplane just doesn’t command the same heft or respect.

When you add to that point pilots’ pride, the cultural resistance must be close to insurmountable. You can almost hear an Air Force Academy grad saying scornfully, “I didn’t spend four years learning to fly to pilot a model airplane!”

There’s already plenty of resistance to flying a Predator remotely, because doing so involves little personal courage and not much rush of adrenaline. You can imagine how much less enthusiastic trained pilots would be to fly “model planes.”

How We can Move Forward

But now imagine a swarm of small RPA from an enemy’s point of view.

Twenty Taliban believe they are safely hidden in a narrow, high, remote mountain valley. With a few seconds warning, a rising whine of small engines suggests an intrusion. At virtually the same moment, a hundred small RPA fly over the tops of the surrounding hills.

Each small RPA comes from a different direction. Each is under the independent control of a different pilot, with instantaneous electronic response. Although small, the planes are more maneuverable than the most modern jet fighter. Their pilots are trained to operate the drones independently but are in constant and instantaneous communication with one another.

The remote pilots feel no fear or confusion, only excitement, professionalism and dedicated purpose. Although the planes come from a hundred different directions, they fly in an organized formation, like a gigantic football team with a preplanned “play.” The pilots have practiced the play repeatedly in simulators and multiple drills, and they are flexible and resourceful enough to change it in an instant.

There are five small RPA for every Taliban target. Each one carries a small-bore rifle, a grenade or a suitable quantity of C-4. The militants can barely see them against the sky and the sun. After the pilots make remote visual contact and confirm their identity, the Taliban have only seconds to react. They don’t stand a chance.

Now suppose the Taliban hold three terrified innocent villagers hostage. A single Taliban guards them. As the small RPA close in, the guard’s attention is diverted by their buzzing and the commotion among his comrades.

In the remote piloting complex, a hundred pairs of eyes scan the field, from a hundred different vantage points, for possible “collateral damage.” They do so under rules of engagement that put a high priority on avoiding it. Because the small RPA are smaller and much less expensive than Predators, they can come a lot closer to their targets before firing, permitting better identification.

One of the hundred remote pilots spots the terrified villagers cowering in fear, while their guard searches the sky for targets. The pilot calls out, “Hold fire! Circle back!” The other pilots comply. As the small RPA pull up and circle for their strike—a delay of some dozen seconds—the team leader assigns three extra drones to the guard, and the remaining pilots divide the other targets. The guard falls first, and the other Taliban fall in turn.

The three hostages live to tell of their miraculous rescue, without a scratch, by all-but-unseen aircraft, at the cost of a few dozen small RPA downed by small-arms fire or rocket-propelled grenades or destroyed by their own internal weapons. As eye witnesses, the happy survivors tell the world that no innocents were sacrificed, increasing popular respect for our forces and their mission.

The results of the mission?
    Militants neutralized: 100%
    Our casualties: none
    Collateral damage: none
    Hostages rescued: three
      Small RPA downed by enemy small-arms fire: 12
      Small RPA destroyed by their own internal weapons: 38
      Total cost (at $4,000 per small RPA): $200,000
      (about two minutes’ worth of our average daily expenditure on the war in Iraq)

How can we make this picture real? As the Times story suggests, probably only by re-instituting a bit of inter-service rivalry.

The Air Force is no more likely to work vigorously toward this end than the Army was to create the Air Force at its inception. It is doubtful that any current pilot wants to fly “model planes,” and there are probably few existing aircraft firms that want to build them.

One answer might be to create a new service, the Remotely Piloted Air Force, independent of both the Army and the Air Force. But the new service would have only an abstract commitment and little esprit de corps.

A better approach might be to create new service branches within the Army and Marines, directly responsible to their commanders and having streamlined procurement power. After all, it’s the troops on the ground who need RPA capability and need it now, for surveillance, attack and defense. They have the greatest and most urgent motivation to succeed, because their lives and missions are on the line.


As the Air Force’s own history shows, air power took over 35 years to be recognized with its own service. We don’t have that sort of time to develop and use small RPA in the war against terrorists and weapons proliferators.

A little imagination shows how powerful, effective and cheap small RPA could be in these sorts of missions, and how simple, quick and cheap (compared to normal military projects) their development might be. With our nation’s expertise in aeronautics, miniaturization, optics, microelectronics, and systems integration, we could have small RPA in the field within a year or two, if we put our minds to it. All that we need is a national commitment, a little imagination on the part of our leaders, and a sense of urgency.


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  • At Fri Jan 23, 12:57:00 AM EST, Blogger Jimmy Lo? said…

    Your idea of RPA is much smarter than what we have now. I wonder if you've heard this Terry Gross interview http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=99663723

    I found it raised some interesting points.


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